(SPOILERS) The dying protagonist subgenre is a difficult one to get right. The customary approach is one of world-weary resignation on the part of the poisoned or terminally ill party that sweetens the pill, suggesting they’re being done something of a favour. It’s also a smart idea to give them some sort of motive force, in order to see them through the proceedings before they kark it. Such as a mystery to solve; there’s a good reason D.O.A. is generally seen as a touchstone in fare of this ilk. Kate fumbles on both counts, leaving the viewer with a rather icky poisoning – you don’t want to be too distracted by that sort of thing, not least because suspension of disbelief that the already superheroic protagonist can function at all evaporates – and a lead character with the slenderest of relatability working for her. Most damningly, however, is a revenge plot that’s really rather limp.
The idea that 87North – the brains behind John Wick, Nobody and Atomic Blonde – are appropriating the EuropaCorp template wholesale, now Besson’s outfit is in a fix, seems to be further confirmed by Kate. It even has an entirely forgettable, insultingly lazy title working against it, almost as a badge of pride (this didn’t harm Lucy, of course, but if anything, its plot ought to have done that, rather than spawning a megahit). EuropaCorp already did the dying assassin thing a few years back with the actually pretty good but underseen 3 Days to Kill, where grizzled Kevin Costner is given an experimental drug to prolong his life while he tracks down an arms trafficker. There, however *SPOILER* Kev doesn’t buy the farm, doubtless as EuropaCorp had an eye on a franchise, little realising they weren’t going to make aging Kev the next Liam Neeson.
Besson’s outfit also has history with the female action protagonist, long before woke associations smothered any individuality or coherence in realising such characters (Besson’s the last person to be associated with the woke cause). Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays her) very evidently comes from the line of Besson trained assassins first seen in La Femme Nikita, and subsequently Colombiana and Anna (oh look, another one-name title, yawn). The benchmark is probably Leon/The Professional, though, in terms of outlining how a minor might fall into the trade of killing for a living; flashbacks in Kate outline her initiation into these leagues. But…
There’s very little to hang onto in Umair Aleem’s screenplay (previously of Bruce Willis “effort” Extraction). About the only distinctive element is the Japanese setting and perky pop soundtrack (also Japanese). But even these are rendered rather unremarkable by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s strictly formulaic direction. Nicolas-Troyan’s an FX guy who made his feature debut with forgettable sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War, the kind of forgettable sequel only studios attempting to extend fairy tale hits beyond their means would think was a good idea (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Alice Through the Looking Glass). I’m guessing David Leitch and Chad Stahelski saw potential there, but it doesn’t pay off the way it did with Ilya Naishuller and Nobody. Nicolas-Troyan is competent, and a few action sequences raise a pulse (the penthouse punch up with Miyavi’s yakuza Jojima is more than decent), but more often than not, the timing is just that bit off being crisp and enervating.
Anyone with the briefest familiarity with this kind of movie will know from the first scene that Woody Harrelson’s handler Varrick will be revealed as a bad seed. Kate’s quest to do for her poisoner – she’s fallen victim to Polonium 204 – inevitably incorporates some regret and atonement for past deeds done, in this case assassinating a Yakuza member in front of her daughter. Note that Kate has no qualms about murdering people for a living, only doing it in front of their kids. A distinction we’re supposed to respect; Kate is that kind of movie. Miku Martineau gives a decent performance as Ani, said daughter, whom Kate inevitably befriends etc, but the chart of their friendship is strictly routine, all the way to Ani discovering the truth.
I hesitate to say it, because I’ve always found Winstead a winning performer, but she’s part of the problem here. There’s zero weight or substance to her character, something all the beatings, shootings, stabbings and increasingly advanced signs of radiation poisoning ironically serve to underline. Winstead’s clearly angling for the kind of chops Charlize displayed in Atomic Blonde (and Mad Max: Fury Road) but she never comes close. She’s better positioned as the resourceful everywoman (Live Free or Die Hard, The Thing, 10 Cloverfield Road) than angling for super-competent action chicks, certainly on the evidence of this and the godawful Birds of Prey.
But in complete fairness, it also goes back to the part. A dying Mel in Edge of Darkness carries with him years of regret and loss. All Winstead has on her side is the makeup department. Disbelief in the logistics takes over quite early on, as Kate begins calling on autoinjectors like they were candy, which seem to do the miraculous trick on stemming the deleterious effects of imminently failing vital organs.
By starting with a downbeat premise, Nicolas-Troyan is stuck with a movie that’s never going to be light or virtuoso, which inevitably leaves one looking about for dramatic meat. Woody simply trots out his Woody act, which is fine; it works. There’s a decent scene with Jun Kunimura (Tanaka in the Kill Bills) as Kate’s believed-objective Kijima, which rather highlights the benefit of underplaying when everyone else is shouting. But such moments are few and far between. Given 87North’s general track record, one vaguely wonders if Kate’s fizzle was less to do with any of the component parts than the hex that is making a movie for Netflix.